For Ridgefield teens, smoking is nothing new.
While cigarettes were once widely accepted, a concerted effort in recent decades to stub out smoking among middle and high school students led to a drop in overall tobacco use.
But now, electronic cigarettes — commonly known as Juuls, or “vapes” and “vape pens” — are quickly filling the void left by traditional cigarettes, alarming both student peers and educators.
“I don’t condone it at all, but kids vape all the time at school, and it’s something the parents should be informed about,” said Maia Clarkin, president of the Ridgefield High School Class of 2018.
“The drug use at school is a lot more common than the parents would think.”
Even middle school students are vaping.
“We have recently become aware of some East Ridge Middle School students who are using e-cigarettes, otherwise known as ‘vaping,’” said East Ridge Principal Patricia Raneri in an email sent to eighth grade parents on Nov. 17.
Raneri said the school’s eighth grade counselor would be speaking with the entire grade about the dangers associated with vaping. (To date, there have been no reports of vaping among middle school students at Scotts Ridge.)
At RHS, students have been caught using the devices in the classroom, according to Principal Dr.Stacey Gross, since the vapor does not leave the tell-tale heavy odor of a burning cigarette.
Tizzie Mantione, a parent of a high school sophomore, said that she made a round of phone calls to five different high school parents after she heard rumors of rampant vaping inside the building.
“They are seeing it happen in the bathrooms, in the hallways, and in the classrooms,” Mantione said, echoing what other RHS parents told her.
Mantione told The Press that the problem covered students of every age group at the high school.
One mother who spoke with Mantione said her daughter saw students muffle the scent of the vape by pulling their shirts up to exhale the cloud of vapor.
Mantione said her son had witnessed people vaping in the school bathrooms.
“My son has said countless times he’s walked into a bathroom and seen smoke, and people quickly walking out — or turning around and stuffing things into their pockets,” Mantione said.
Gross confirmed reports of vaping inside RHS classrooms.
“Early last year we received one report of vaping in a classroom,” she said in an email to The Press when asked for comment about the stories circulating about vaping.
Gross acknowledged that the behavior is unacceptable for students, but stressed that the number of incidents involving vaping at RHS is not nearly as high as rumors would suggest.
“Teachers have since received information/education about vaping/Juuls last year and this year in order to support their ability to be vigilant in protecting all students,” Gross said.
Electronic cigarettes come in any number of shapes and sizes.
According to a student from the RHS Class of 2018 who spoke to The Press anonymously, the go-to device at RHS is the Juul vaporizer made by Juul Labs of San Francisco.
Part of the appeal is how innocuous the devices can appear to passersby.
Whereas many vapes are about the size and shape of a pack of cigarettes — or are designed to look like traditional cigarettes, Juuls are slim and concealable.
“It seems like these companies are going out of their way to make it harder for adults to recognize what kids are doing, which really puts kids’ safety at risk,” said Gross.
“Because even if parents and teachers go out of their way to be vigilant, it seems like companies are going out of their way to trick us.”
To a passerby, a Juul looks a lot like a USB thumb drive, and even charges with a USB connector. Wired magazine called the device the “iPhone of e-cigs.”
It’s also potent.
One Juul “pod” — a sealed container of flavored nicotine liquid, which clips on to the device — contains about the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes. Users get about 200 puffs out of each pod, the Juul Labs website claims.
Mantione said she’s heard of adults using vaporizers to break a cigarette habit.
“There’s a good reason for [vaping] for someone who’s going from a pack a day,” she said, but not for a kid who gets hooked on nicotine through vaping.
In online forums, users describe getting a “buzz” from the liquid nicotine in the pod, which is released in the vapor.
Most of the juices sold for the Juul feature exotic, fruity flavors — mango, mint, crême brulée — as well as the traditional “Virginia tobacco” flavor.
While many vaporizers will work with nicotine-free “e-liquids,” all the flavors currently sold for the Juul feature liquid nicotine.
Among Ridgefield teens, the popularity of Juuls has created an underground market for the device.
“The cost varies depending on what year you are. Juuls are normally $60,” explained the anonymous student, who will graduate from RHS this spring. “But for a freshman, it could be up to $100 or more.”
The senior then explained the price of pods.
“A single pod for a friend ranges from $4 to $7, but a pack is $18 to $20 in stores and usually sells for $22 to $25. Freshmen would pay around $30.”
Juul vaporizers retail for $49, according to the device’s website, so students who sell Juuls to their classmates could easily pocket anywhere from $10 to $50 for each vape sold.
In response to states and local municipalities increasing the legal age to buy tobacco products and e-cigarettes to 21, Juul stated that its online-ordering system would accept orders only from customers age 21 and up.
“We strongly condemn the use of our product by minors, and it is, in fact, illegal to sell our product to minors. No minor should be in possession of a Juul product,” said representatives for Juul Labs, when asked for comment regarding the prevalence of vaping among teens in Ridgefield.
“Our goal is to further reduce the number of minors who possess or use tobacco products, including vapor products, and to find ways to keep young people from ever trying these products.”
While proponents of vapes say they are an effective aid to quitting smoking, e-cigarettes and vapes are not regulated under the same FDA guidelines as other “smoking-cessation products,” like nicotine gum or patches.
“The aerosol from e-cigarettes is not harmless,” the surgeon general’s website states.
Besides nicotine, the chemicals found in e-cigarettes can include diacetyl, which is linked to lung disease; benzene, found in car exhausts; and “heavy metals such as nickel, tin and lead.”
The jury’s still out on what the exact health implications are for people who use Juuls or other vaporizers long-term, the surgeon general notes. That includes people exposed to secondhand vapor from those around them.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine two years ago claimed that e-cigarette liquids might release formaldehyde into the user’s lungs as the liquid is vaporized.
Most e-liquids contain propylene glycol, an odorless liquid widely used in the food and pharmaceutical industries. The chemical helps produce the thick cloud of vapor that vape users find pleasing.
When the substance is heated to produce vapor, the trouble begins.
“Formaldehyde is a known degradation product of propylene glycol,” the study said.
In general, the study found that heating the e-liquids at low-voltage did not produce a detectable amount of formaldehyde-releasing agents.
At higher voltages, e-liquids produced enough formaldehyde to be five to 15 times as likely to cause cancer over the user’s lifetime as smoking traditional cigarettes.
“The concern with vaping is equal with any other abuse, whether it’s tobacco, alcohol — any of the opiates,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi.
“In some extreme cases it has been known to cause blistering of the esophagus … what future implication that may have is not known yet.”
Ridgefield police Capt. Jeff Kreitz said he’s noticed an uptick in the number of teens using e-cigarettes over the last three or four years.
“We had an incident where we issued a juvenile summons last spring,” Kreitz recalled.
In that case, the device confiscated from the Ridgefield High student tested positive for THC — marijuana.
Some vaporizers can be used to deliver THC oil rendered from marijuana, though comments from students and administrators more commonly refer to nicotine or flavored nicotine pods.
“Be on top of the kids,” Kreitz said. “Know who they’re with, know what they’re up to. Ask lots of questions.”
“If anyone has any questions, or are not sure of what a device is, please call us, by all means,” he added.
Popularity and punishment
Principal Gross told The Press that it appears “smoking has dropped off in favor of vaping.”
Asked about the consequences associated with using a vape in school, Gross explained it would depend on what the student was using the device for.
“If a student is caught using a vaping implement, it is tested by the school resource officer. … What he finds influences the type of consequences,” Gross said.
Consequences would include numerous detentions up through “stronger consequences,” she said.
“And selling them would certainly be treated as a high-stakes disciplinary consequence,” she added.
Superintendent Karen Baldwin said students caught vaping on school grounds, or at school events, would be required to attend three mandatory addiction meetings at Ridgefield High School.
Gross said the meetings would be conducted with either one of the school psychologists, or the school social worker.
“The school district takes all issues of student substance abuse quite seriously,” Baldwin said in an email.